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TRAVERSE CITY, MI – Swashbucklers ahoy! In September, the waters of Michigan’s Grand Traverse Bay will swarm with schooners, cutters, sloops and other tall ships during the first-ever Michigan Schooner Festival.

The three-day festival in Traverse City, scheduled for Sept. 11-13, will feature a wide array of sailing vessels – from sleek two-masted cargo schooners and classic yachts to tidy little Mackinaw boats and even a replica British armed sloop from the War of 1812. Organizers say the festival will include food, music, tours, rides, cannon-shooting and other merriment.

The idea for the Schooner Festival was hatched in 2008 by the Maritime Heritage Alliance, a group of local sailing-history buffs who work to restore, preserve and sail the big ships that figured so prominently in Traverse City’s early history. In September, the Alliance held a smallish “classic yacht regatta” on the Bay that included eight wood-hulled sailing vessels, and the event drew an unexpectedly enthusiastic response.

“So many people attended the regatta that we decided to ramp things up a little, make it a whole weekend, and create a festival devoted to the really big boats,” said Mark Thompson, the group’s executive director.

The Alliance will bring its own tall ships to the festival – the schooner Madeline, the cutter Champion and the Welcome – a replica of a 19th century British armed sloop. The Inland Seas Education Association in nearby Suttons Bay has committed its own “floating classroom” – the imposing schooner Inland Seas with its trademark blood-red sails – and other Great Lakes sailing vessels, from Milwaukee’s three-masted schooner S/V Denis Sullivan and Port Huron’s topsail schooner Highlander Sea to the 85-foot Appledore IV from Bay City and the replica sloop Friends Goodwill from South Haven.

Visitors are often surprised to discover that Michigan is a major gathering-place for large sailing vessels. Schooners and other tall ships played a major role in the settlement and development of the Upper Great Lakes, which lacked roads and railroads until late in the 19th century. (That’s also why Michigan has more lighthouses than any other state in the Union.)

The waters of Grand Traverse Bay and the nearby Manitou Passage were some of the busiest in the country, bustling with schooners, cutters, sloops and Mackinaw boats, and later with side-wheelers and steamships. Even today, tall ships are a familiar part of Traverse City’s landscape. During the summer months, it’s not unusual to see one or two of them gliding majestically over the deep blue water of West Bay.

 Unfortunately, they’re almost never all in port at the same time. Except for the dependable Manitou, a 114-foot cargo schooner that carries passengers on three leisurely cruises across the Bay each day from June to September, most of the community’s tall ships are usually employed elsewhere, sailing about the Lakes as “watergoing ambassadors” for the area.

Impressive as a single schooner can be, the sight of a dozen large ships under full sail on a bright fall day is unforgettable, says Thompson. That’s the experience the Maritime Heritage Alliance wants to recreate in September. They’re planning to start the three-day festival with an evening “grand parade of sail” as the vessels make their way south to Traverse City’s Duncan L. Clinch Marina.

Other activities will include tours, passenger rides aboard the vessels, entertainment by maritime musical groups (including Traverse City’s own Song of the Lakes) a progressive dinner and wine-tasting from ship to ship, competitions and games for youngsters – and a Sunday morning “Pancakes with Pirates” event.

To view a complete schedule, photos of participating ships and other information, check out the festival’s web site at

For detailed information and directions about other events, adventures, activities and attractions in the Traverse City area, as well as help with lodging and dining visit the Traverse City Convention & Visitors Bureau at or call 1-800-872-8377.

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